I spent a wonderful week at the Science of Aphasia conference on Lido di Venezia. I was looking forward to write a post about a number of great presentations and inspiring ideas, and about spending lunch breaks swimming in the Adriatic Sea. I would be writing this post now if, on the way back to London, I hadn't joined a sad little club.
I was on the EasyJet flight EZY5268 from Marco Polo to Gatwick. My seat was at the aisle, next to an older British man and his wife. I put on my headphones, looked at photos taken during the week, and started to put together a music playlist on my phone. The plane just started to move when the man next to me stood up, leaned on the back rest in front of him and stretched out one arm as if placing an order. "Hostess", he called several times as his legs started shaking. I noticed that his wife was holding a tissue against her nose and asked both if they were okay. Since the flight attendants were already on their jump seats, they didn't notice. "Push the button", other passengers said, gesturing up. As one attendant came towards us, the man pointed at me. "Excuse me", he said with a trembling voice, still pointing. "He is looking at Muslim pictures on his phone."
In such moments it is difficult to think clearly. I did some right things. I immediately raised my voice to his level, expressed my surprise (I think "wow" was my first word), said that this was "first class racism" and that I couldn't believe what was happening. I also said some things I shouldn't have: that I was born in Brazil and was German, that I was "as atheist as they come", and that I was putting together music on my phone. I held my screen towards the flight attendant, which was another mistake.
While I believe that my voice must have sounded cool and confident, I felt my sweat break. My heart started racing. Everyone was looking at us or into our direction. In a previous post I wrote in German I wondered what, in our days of escalation, some people saw when they looked at me. Here I had a very clear answer, and while I never would have ruled out being considered a threat, I certainly did not expect it. I was angry, sad, and became increasingly anxious.
The flight attendant, a young woman with dark hair, did not pay attention to the couple. She squatted next to me and asked me if wanted to speak Portuguese or English. I was surprised by the language options. She must have been Portuguese. Having left Brazil more than 30 years ago, my Portuguese is more than rusty. I have forgotten most of it. Nevertheless I started speaking it with her, as if providing more exculpatory evidence.
See, I made misakes because I started defending against a claim that would be meaningless among reasonable people. Even if I had been reading from the Quran, even if I had been looking at a slideshow of The Prophet's Mosque, these shouldn't be accusations. But I was defending against two levels of ignorance and intolerance: the racism that grouped me with Muslims, and the islamophobia that made the presence of a muslim on a plane seem life-threatening. Later I mentioned that it shouldn't matter whether I was Muslim or not, but it felt too late.
By now my denouncer's wife started apologising, and he quickly joined her. Relieved that I was not a Muslim, he touched my shoulder, said that it is better to be safe than sorry, one cannot know, it's better to be safe, isn't it. Also, I wasn't allowed to use phones on the plane. His wife came from a different angle: It's a mixture between fear and ignorance, isn't it, it's difficult.
I corrected the man with regards to the phone, did not accept his apology and asked him to think about why he did what he did. I wanted to say more, but my voice started breaking. I was so angry and disappointed. A second flight attendant came to me, also ignoring the couple, and asked me if I was doing okay. I had a go at British understatement by saying that my neighbour "created a memorable moment", but I started choking on my words. The Portuguese attendant came back. She asked if I wanted to sit somewhere else. A part of me, the same that likes to argue with Jehova's Witnesses and chemtrail theorists, wanted to stay. I am not sure if I could have handled it emotionally. I also realized that with this offer, the attendants were very clearly taking my side. I say Yes.
So I spent the rest of the flight talking to an English retired manager from (I think) the London Ambulance Service. We spoke about jobs, family, flying, but also about the right wing in Europe and the US, Syria and the refugee crisis, and the statistical risk of dying from a terror attack. It was a friendly conversation of the kind that helped immensely while I was blood was still rushing and I was trying not to cry. When the flight attendant offered me a free drink, I was close to ordering something alcoholic, as if I had more to prove. I went with a Coke. I had to think about how this incident made me join those who became victims of racism in an airplane, a growing and cheerless Low Mile Club of Prejudice. Thanks to the wonderful reaction by the EasyJet staff, my initiation was less traumatic than it could have been. Maybe the airlines are learning. Maybe I was lucky.
I had to think about Muslims, who certainly are much more likely to get into such a situation, and about a Pakistani friend who doesn't like taking the London Overground because she sometimes gets verbally harassed. I had to think about Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man who was shot by London Metropolitan Police in the wake of 7/7, after being mistaken for the suspect Osman Hussain, reportedly because of suspicious behaviour and his "Mongolian eyes".
More than ever I felt the stark contrast between the world I got to know within academia, within I can speak to Russians, Palestinians, Indonesians and Malaysians about language and aphasia, and the reality outside. I had to think about Clinton's mention of "implicit racism" in the first presidential debate just a few days earlier.
Three British passengers approached me after landing, each apologizing for what happened. The third assured me that not all British people were like this. After living in England for eight years, I am happy to agree.